Mental Competence #2: clever

I started with the noun, intelligence because the adjective intelligent is formed from the noun. With clever, the reverse is true, the noun, not often used, is cleverness.


a : skillful or adroit in using the hands or body : nimble <clever fingers>
b : mentally quick and resourceful <a clever young lawyer>
: marked by wit or ingenuity <a clever solution> <a clever idea>


clever (comparative cleverer or more clever, superlative cleverest or most clever)
  1. Nimble with hands or body; skillful; adept.
  2. Resourceful, sometimes to the point of cunning. clever like a fox
  3. Smart, intelligent or witty; mentally quick or sharp.
  4. Showing inventiveness or originality; witty.

Urban Dictionary

Describing someone smart, intelligent or witty, opposite of dumb
''man he's really clever!''

Doug Harper is terse, but does throw in a quote from Dr Johnson:

late 16c., "handy, dexterous," from E.Anglian dialectal cliver "expert at seizing," perhaps from E.Fris. klufer or Norwegian dialectic klover "ready, skillful," and perhaps influenced by O.E. clifer "claw, hand" (early usages seem to refer to dexterity); extension to intellect is first recorded 1704.

 'This is a low word, scarcely ever used but in burlesque or conversation; and applied to any thing a man likes, without a settled meaning.' [Johnson, 1755]

Evidently, in the C.18, the word had become rather like "nice". In some parts of the ESW (English-speaking-world) the meaning has reverted back to that of dextrous, and you will certainly hear this in both UK and US in phrases like "clever with her hands". Once it became a term for mental competence, it certainly seemed to have preserved for a long time the sense of dexterity or careful skill. It is possible that this meaning arose an association with the word cleave which in the late middle ages was pronounced somewhere close to 'clave/clahver'; this word had two distinct and logically opposite meanings. Here's Doug on cleave:

Cleave (1): "to split," O.E. cleofan "to split, separate" (class II strong verb, past tense cleaf, past participle clofen), from P.Gmc. *kleubanan (cf. O.S. klioban, O.N. kljufa, Dan. klöve, Du. kloven, O.H.G. klioban, Ger. klieben "to cleave, split"), from PIE base *gleubh- "to cut, slice" (see glyph). Past tense form clave is recorded in Northern writers from 14c. and was used with both verbs (see cleave (2)), apparently by analogy with other ME strong verbs. Clave was common to c.1600 and still alive at the time of the King James Bible; weak past tense cleaved for this verb also emerged in 14c.; cleft is still later. The p.p. cloven survives, though mostly in compounds.

Cleave (2): "to adhere," O.E. clifian, from W.Gmc. *klibajanan (cf. O.S. klibon, O.H.G. kliban, Du. kleven, O.H.G. kleben, Ger. kleben "to stick, cling"), from PIE *gloi- "to stick" (see clay). The confusion was less in O.E. when cleave (1) was a class 2 strong verb; but it has grown since cleave (1) weakened, which may be why both are largely superseded by stick and split.

In figurative language there are (allegedly) some examples of cleave being used in the sense of taking a decision, either as "choosing between two options" (cleave (1)) or "picking a side" (cleave(2)). Both of these are plausible, but I haven't been able to track down any positive examples of this.

In any case, this "decisional capacity" doesn't seem to be a major element of the modern sense of clever. In modern English, unless we are using the vague sense that the top TU'd entry in UD so precisely gives, most usage seems to be related to skill or quickness.

Use of clever when establishing a character will, therefore, give the reader a sense that the person has quick mental reactions, and skill with tricky or highly detailed problems – especially in terms of coming up with ingenious or original solutions in situations where others are too slow or at a loss. This can occasionally be taken too far, for example the invention of a gadget that while effective and ingenious is unnecessary – or making a remark that may be apposite, but is facetious rather than helpful, and is met with cries of: "Oh very clever!"

The next post in the series deals with cunning. Some readers may find one of the words in the post about cunning offensive.

Or go back to the first post in this series.


Sharp readers will notice that I have used the US spelling of skillful – this is deliberate. I think the UK spelling is silly. I have also used my own spelling rule for dextrous. I drop the letter 'e' when it is it is between two consonants in a word where 90% or more of the ESW pronounce the word without adding a syllable for the 'e'. Bear in mind that if you publish independently you can normalize spelling with impunity AS LONG AS IT ISN'T TOO GLARING. English is spelled horribly, and we can change that. We just have to be really gentle about it. :-)

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